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Hard sell in Hillsborough: Higher property taxes to support schools

The district wants to join others in Florida in using local dollars to boost education spending.
Hillsborough superintendent Addison Davis addresses a largely empty audience at Armwood High School to discuss a proposed property tax increase on July 13, 2022.
Hillsborough superintendent Addison Davis addresses a largely empty audience at Armwood High School to discuss a proposed property tax increase on July 13, 2022. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times staff ]
Published Jul. 22|Updated Jul. 22

Former Plant High principal Johnny Bush put 15 blue and white signs on his lawn in South Tampa, and a message on Facebook inviting people to help themselves. “Vote yes for Hillsborough schools,” was the simple message. Within a few days, all but four signs were gone.

“I just want to help kids and give back to a profession that was very, very good to me for a lot of years,” said Bush, who is now retired and runs an association of school administrators. To critics who pushed back in their Facebook comments, he said, “If you don’t agree with it, you don’t agree with it. But do your research.”

The local option tax on the August ballot would collect $1 on every $1,000 of assessed property value with the goal of raising teacher pay and enhancing elective programs. It marks the second time in four years that Hillsborough voters have been asked to fill gaps left by a state educational funding system that has not kept up with inflation.

Supporters say the tax would add up to 67 cents a day for the average homeowner. “Less than a cup of coffee,” said Superintendent Addison Davis, who is on a speaking circuit where, technically, he cannot advocate, only inform the public on the merits of the tax.

Around Florida, such taxes typically sail through.

But nothing about this economy is typical. Gas is fluctuating between $4 and $5 a gallon. Restaurant entrees that were $12 are now $20. Even with a new minimum salary of $47,500, teachers are struggling to pay Tampa’s sky-high rents. And retirees on fixed incomes are watching every penny.

“We know we’re in the most difficult times to ask,” Davis told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board. “But if I don’t ask and do nothing, then what type of leader will I be as the CEO of this organization?”

Davis, now in his third year on the job, is not shy about making the issue personal. He references his daughter in high school when he talks about the 8,000 Hillsborough students last year who did not have fully certified teachers because so many are fleeing the profession.

What if that were his child, without a professional “helping her navigate through complex classes, helping her navigate through life every day?” he asked.

In some ways it is personal, as much of Davis’s pitch rests on his own track record.

He says his team has much to be proud of. School grades improved this year. Granted, they improved all over Florida. But Hillsborough rose in comparison to the rest of the state. Ranked 35th in points when he arrived, the district is now 19th.

Financially, there is also progress. Two years ago the district was a fiscal laughingstock, trapped in a cycle of massive operational deficits that it papered over with end-of-year transfers from capital accounts.

Threatened with a state financial takeover, Davis imposed austerity measures that included cutting 1,000 positions from a workforce of 25,000. Backlash from teachers, parents and the School Board was immense. Continued hiring controls and more timely accounting transfers protected the reserve, which must be at least 3 percent of revenues under state law.

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“We scrutinize every cent,” Davis said. “It’s like ‘Shark Tank’ when you walk into our cabinet meeting.”

Davis and members of the school board remind voters frequently that the source of the problem is in Tallahassee, where education spending lags despite a historically high surplus of $21.8 billion.

But their more immediate challenge, they say, is paying the teachers.

In a highly unpopular move, the district gave its teachers one-time pay supplements for 2021-22 instead of full raises. They did so because they were using federal COVID-19 relief funds, which could not be tapped for ongoing expenses. A similar proposal is in front of the teachers’ union for 2022-23.

The result of these actions, district leaders say, will likely be a surplus of about $2 million.

But while a surplus would satisfy the state government, it does nothing to cure the loss of employees to higher-paying jobs in Pinellas and Manatee counties, which already have the local-option property taxes; Pasco, which expects to pass a similar tax hike in August — or away from education all together.

“If we don’t do something, that great resignation will stay in front of us and we will not win the talent war,” Davis said. “I have lost principals. I have lost teachers, I have lost support staff, district staff, all to surrounding counties.”

Davis and his deputy superintendent, Terry Connor, describe the campaign as grass-roots. But unlike the sales tax campaign of 2018, which raised money for capital purchases such as air conditioners, there is little evidence of a true grass-roots effort.

Most of Davis’s appearances have been before business organizations. His appearances in high school auditoriums did not begin until mid-July and, for the most part, have been sparsely attended. Only four people who did not work for the district were at a July 13 session at Armwood High. Most questions came from a retiree who complained about the low turnout and incompetent teachers, then declined to identify himself.

A political action committee called Strong Classrooms for our Future was formed in June. Its campaign finance report showed five contributions totaling $19,000, most from businesses and one from Bush’s administrators’ organization. Strengthen Our Schools, the campaign organization for the 2018 referendum, raised more than $315,000, much of it in donations of $500 or less from private citizens.

Bush’s organization, the Hillsborough Association of School Administrators, is helping with the information campaign, as is the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association. Both employee groups have been promised their members will share in proceeds of the tax if it passes.

“If it doesn’t pass,” Davis told the Armwood audience, “you’ll see me again.”

WHERE THE MONEY WILL GO:

  • The tax, if approved, will raise an estimated $146 million a year beginning in 2023.
  • $23 million will go to charter schools, as required by state law.
  • $98 million will be used for pay raises that will average roughly $6.5 percent across the workforce.
  • $11 million will fund new positions in art, music and physical education so elementary schools do not have to share these specialists.
  • $6 million will replace obsolete musical instruments and supplies.
  • $8 million will support career training programs.
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